While I have written in the past that I don’t like to grade a draft pick or make any assumptions about them prior to at least three years later, sometimes that’s a hard proclamation to live up to. Especially when you go back and read some of the draft day reactions.
Ever since the days of the great Mario/Vince & Reggie debate of the 2006 NFL Draft, Houston Texans fans and critics have loved to second guess every pick the team selects. In 2006, most of the fan base was completely divided among those who wanted the consensus best player available in Reggie Bush (which is laughable now) against those who wanted the “hometown hero” in Vince Young. The arguments were long, endless and sometimes nasty. By the time the draft rolled around, both sides were arguing that whomever the Texans didn’t pick were going to be the biggest mistake the franchise had ever made and that they were pulling a “Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan.” Well, they surprised everyone and went with Mario Williams and we all know how that panned out.
For years, it appeared that the Texans made the right pick, even though Mario will be putting on a Buffalo Bills uniform in 2012. In fact, all three guys will be playing for teams other than those who drafted them back in 2006. But the point is that every draft after that one has been second guessed by every Texans fan and pundit with extreme prejudice, one way or another, ever since.
In 2007, Houston selected defensive tackle Amobi Okoye with players like Patrick Willis and Derrelle Revis still on the board and filling positions of need. However, after the success of Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Owen Daniels the year before, Texans fans decided to trust them. Long story short, Okoye busted harder than a cap from a .45 handgun.
So in 2008, the masses were in panic for the team “reaching” for an offensive tackle in the first round. Now, they look at Duane Brown as a cornerstone of the franchise. Steve Slaton was also seemingly a homerun in the later rounds. But trust was not yet restored. This is why, much to people probably not believing it now, the selection of Brian Cushing in the 2009 draft was met with the biggest backlash since Mario Williams. Connor Barwin in the second was hit with tons of criticism as well. Do you see where I’m getting?
Fans of this team are never usually sold on an early draft pick, but mostly because the team doesn’t select who the majority wanted them to take. This is likely true with almost every fan base. But one in particular from recent history was the first pick of the 2011 NFL Draft that saw the Texans picking 11th overall with multiple options on the board. As the names flew off the board and Houston hit the clock, I remember twitter exploding for demands that the Texans select DT Nick Fairley out of Auburn.
It was hard to argue against, as Fairley played a key role in the championship season his Auburn Tigers had just completed. He also had ties to Houston, filled a need and was once thought of as a top 3 player in the draft.
Now some of us knew that there was no way that Houston was going to take him. They’ll take a guy who has had a few bumps in the road, but Fairley had multiple red flags, mostly with his character and motor. But you can’t tell the average sports fan that. They want the best player available, regardless of off the field concerns. So when the card turned in the name J.J. Watt, you got criticism from the fan base like the article I’m now going to reflect on.
Chris Baldwin of Culture Map Houston had a piece the next day about how the Texans were going to “rue the night they took Pizza Boy J.J. Watt over Nick Fairley.” And at the time, many around the city agreed with him, regardless of what they’ll now tell you. Baldwin stated the following:
A star fell right into the Houston Texans laps on draft night, like a blessing from the football gods — only Rick Smith, Gary Kubiak and Wade Phillips didn’t grab him. Instead, they punted Nick Fairley to the Detroit Lions, where he’ll collect Pro Bowl berths for years to come. The Texans took a former Pizza Hut deliveryman instead. But that pizza boy sure has a lot of character. This franchise may never make the playoffs under Bob McNair, but it’s sure going to have high-quality gentlemen on the roster.
As I said, a lot of fans could care less about character, even if the guys giving him millions of dollars do. Baldwin continued:
Watt is a great story. But it’s hard to imagine him ever being a star. It’s hard to see him changing games for Houston on defense.
Sorry to interrupt again, but, Andy Dalton disagrees with that statement. But I digress.
The Texans had a chance at that type of impact risk force and they ran smiling politely the other way. As much as anything, this is why the Smith, Kubiak and now Phillips regime will never completely work. Too safe. Too fearful. Too unimaginative. You couldn’t script a more perfect landing. And the Texans’ now three-headed brain trust punted.
Houston would have loved him too. Only the Texans don’t believe in stars. They just want to feel safe.
Now, I don’t want to seem like I’m picking on poor Chris here, because Lord knows plenty of other writers wish they could take back something they’ve written in the past (I’d link you to some of mine, but they’ve thankfully been taken off of a previous employers server). But this is exactly why you can’t judge these kids before they’ve ever played a single game in the NFL.
Watt looks to have all the makings to be a defensive star in this league and was a monster on the national stage last year. Meanwhile, Fairley had an injury plagued rookie season paired with lackluster play on the field. He followed that up with an arrest in the offseason for possession of marijuana. Only to follow that up with an arrest for DUI last week.
So the story here is to not jump to conclusions by making a statement like this the day after the draft. We don’t know. When a player drops that far in the draft, it’s usually for a reason. Character flags do matter.
Two more years from now, Fairley may have gotten back on the right course and become the dominant force all the naysayers of Watt expected him to be and this article may seem funny. But I am making no absolutes here. You win some and you lose some. It appears, in Watt, the Texans won this one.